The world’s best smart cities don’t just adopt new technology: they make it work for people

Well that one is just way too small: a smart cities expo in India. Image: Getty.

Cities are fast becoming “smart”, and the impact on people’s lives can be immense. Singapore’s smart traffic cameras restrict traffic depending on volume, and ease the commute of thousands of passengers every day. In Kaunas, Lithuania, the cost of parking is automatically deducted from the bank accounts of drivers when they park their cars. In many cities, the timing of public buses is announced at each stop with almost perfect accuracy. And free WiFi is now accessible across entire cities, including Buenos Aires, Argentina and Ramallah, Palestine.

Today, improving urban services through digital transformation is a huge industry, dominated by the likes of Cisco and IBM. But the idea of a “smart city” encompasses more than the clever application of technology in urban areas. That technology must also contribute to making cities more sustainable, and improving the quality of life for the people who live there.

That’s why a team of researchers from IMD in Switzerland and SUTD in Singapore – including myself – put together the Smart City Index. For the first time, we attempted to assess people’s perceptions of technology – as opposed to the quality of the technology itself – as a way to characterise the “smartness” of a city. We did this by conducting a massive survey among citizens of 102 cities, to assess how favourably they viewed the technology made available to them.

Problems with perceptions

Take Paris, for instance – a city which has embarked on an ambitious project to redesign its urban landscape. The initiative – called Reinventer Paris – started by receiving suggestions from citizens about how to use and renovate obsolete and disused buildings. At the same time, the velib public bike-sharing program introduced about 14,000 bicycles into regular use throughout the city, with the aim of alleviating congestion and reducing pollution.

But more than five years after its introduction, citizens are still not feeling the benefits. Our smart city index ranks Paris 51st out of 102 cities in the world, in terms of the ability of the city’s technology to improve lives. Our participants from Paris gave their city a low score of 22 out of 100 – where zero indicates total disagreement and 100 signifies complete agreement – in response to the statement that “air pollution is not a problem”. By contrast, citizens of Zurich gave their city a score of 60 in response the same statement.

And although Reinventer Paris was specifically designed to be a bottom-up, participatory process, Parisians give a score of 36 out of 100 to the statement that “residents provide feedback on local government projects”. By comparison, the city of Auckland received a score of 71 from its residents, putting it in sixth place in the overall ranking.


The global picture

Only to the extent that digital technologies make a meaningful difference to people’s lives, can cities efficiently become smart. Our ranking puts Singapore, Zurich, Oslo, Geneva and Copenhagen in the top five, followed by Auckland, Taipei, Helsinki, Bilbao and Dusseldorf. Cities at the bottom of the ranking are all in developing economies or emerging markets, including Bogota, Cairo, Nairobi, Rabat and Lagos.

We were surprised to find that cities well known globally for their adoption of new technology did not make it to the top of the ranking. This was the case for several cities in China – which have received intensive investment from the Chinese government to increase their access to technology – including Nanjin (ranked 55), Guangzhou (57) and Shanghai (59). Likewise, Tokyo shows up in 62nd position, New York City in 38th and Tel Aviv in 46th place.

Smaller, smarter

Smart cities only make sense when technology meets citizens’ needs. A bike-sharing scheme will only seem useful if the city’s infrastructure facilitates cycling – and believe me, only the brave would dare cross Place Charles de Gaulle in Paris at noon on a bike.

At the same time, people recognise when technology solves a problem, because their lives get better. In an extensive study of 16 cities – published in our new book Sixteen Shades of Smart – we found that Medellin has become a very successful smart city because technology targets citizens’ main problem – safety. Similarly, without massive investment, public WiFi in Ramallah has done more for its people by providing them with access to the outside world in a walled city, than any air pollution monitoring system.

We have also found that large cities and megacities find it difficult to become smart. Most of the cities on the top of our ranking are mid-size cities. It is easy to extend the benefits of technology to people in San Francisco (ranked number 12 with a population of 884,000) and Bilbao (ninth, with a population of 350,000); but it is much more difficult to do the same in Los Angeles (35th, population of 4m) and Barcelona (48th, population of 5.5m).

There are 29 cities in the world with a population of more than 10m (including their metropolitan area), and that’s expected to grow to 43 by 2030. The differences between cities – even those in the same country – will continue to grow, as leaders seek out digital solutions to urban problems. But the real test will be whether citizens feel the benefits.

The Conversation

Arturo Bris, Professor of Finance, International Institute for Management Development (IMD)

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.


Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.